Ads Of The Masters: Posters, Dalí & Toulouse-Lautrec

As an art form, promotional posters hold a unique position in art history. The oldest form of advertising, posters are well-represented in antiquity: the Egyptians used papyrus to make posters promoting business and political candidates, and the first lost-and-found posters date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Looking at the archaeological record, it seems that whenever a people have found something easy to write on, they began using it for advertising soon after.
Aside from their obvious commercial function, ad posters have long served as a means of support for artists struggling to establish their careers. They were (and in the guise of the modern ad industry, in some sense remain) a modern variant of the patronage system that royals, the church and the wealthy used to support artists for hundreds of years. Artists require stable income to give them the time to study and develop their talents, and like patronage before it, advertising has enabled the careers of some of history’s most accomplished artists. Today, we look at two of them: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Salvador Dalí.
'Moulin Rouge: La Goulue' made Toulouse-Lautrec notorious in Paris. | Photo: Joe Bonadio
Born in the French Pyrénées in 1864, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was plagued with health problems as a child, and grew to be short in physical stature–about 4’ 8”. His torso was of normal size, but because of a genetic disorder (and possibly because of inbreeding–his mother and father were first cousins) his legs never developed properly. As a result, though he came from an aristocratic family, from an early age Toulouse-Lautrec seemed to view himself as an outlier, a perception which would profoundly shape his life.
Having decided to pursue art, in 1882 he relocated to Paris, where his studies would place him in the center of lively, bohemian Montmartre. The district would become his home for nearly two decades, and have an enduring influence on his work. It was in Montmartre that Toulouse-Lautrec met his first prostitute, a woman named Marie-Charlet. It was also where he would acquire his taste for liquor and the cabaret lifestyle. So fond was he of drink, in fact, that he reportedly hollowed out his cane to fill it with spirits.
Jane Avril - Real Old Paper Gallery Toulouse Lautrec's depiction of Jane Avril for Jardin de Paris. | Photo: Joe Bonadio
Toulouse-Lautrec had a regular stipend from his family, but also chose to carve out his own source of income. When the infamous Moulin Rouge cabaret opened, they commissioned the artist to produce a series of posters for the club, many of which were destined to become the artist’s most recognizable work. Around the same time, he was also hired by William Spears Simpson for the “La Chaîne Simpson” bicycle ad, and by the J & E Bella company to promote confetti of all things.
While some artists may have felt compromised by such work, Toulouse-Lautrec seemed to have no such compunction. It gave him exposure and money of his own, and at a time when his reputation was still being established, lent the artist a degree of public acceptance.
Like his friend Vincent van Gogh, he would also perish well before the age of 40. Racked by alcoholism and syphilis, the latter likely bestowed upon him by his final lover, prostitute Rosa La Rouge, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec died at 36 in 1901. In recent years, originals of his full-size advertising posters–posters made to be disposed of within days–have sold for as much as $450,000.
Chupa Chups by Dali - The original Chupa Chups logo, designed by Salvador Dalí in 1969.
Another artist who didn’t draw a line between art and commercialism was Salvador Dalí. Though a highly respected Surrealist painter, Dalí was also known as an avaricious businessman. Many have forgotten this now, but the artist was the creator of the original logo for the Chupa Chups line of lollipops, and even appeared at one time in a commercial for Alka-Seltzer.™
Chemins de fer francais (Alsace) - Real Old Paper Gallery Salvador Dalí's Chemins de fer francais (Alsace), printed in 1970. | Photo: Joe Bonadio
In 1969, Dalí was commissioned by the French National Railway to create a series of poster promoting train travel. Six pieces were produced, one for each of the rail system’s main stops: Alsace, Paris, Auvergne, Normandie, Alpes and Roussillon. Sometimes called the “Butterfly Series” for the butterfly motif that run through the pieces, the posters were unmistakably Dalí.
Chemins de fer francais (Normandie) - Dali's Chemins de fer francais (Normandie) overtly shows the artist's style. | Photo: Joe Bonadio
“The Chemins de fer francais, meaning the road of iron–the French Rail–commissioned Dalí to do six paintings as destination pieces,” explains Andrew England, owner of Real Old Paper in San Francisco’s North Beach. His gallery focuses on vintage posters just like these, and England has an impressive collection to say the least: “I have four of the first printing, and all six in a smaller format from a commemorative printing in 1989.”
In what is probably the darkest of the series, ‘Alsace,’ Dalí depicts the Strasbourg Cathedral, humanizing the iconic structure by cloaking it in a red man-shaped umbra. Dark black paint stretches out on either side of the figure to suggest ebony butterfly wings, as ravens circle the towers in the troubled sky above. You’ve got to hand it to Dalí. That is some travel poster!
Real Ol Per Gallery - A quiet moment at Real Old Paper Gallery in San Francisco's North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio
We’ll be exploring more on this topic soon, but for a more detailed look at these artists’ works in this format, be sure to visit Real Old Paper Gallery for a look around. Private tours are also available, and remember, we offer generous discounts for San Francisco locals–so make sure to inquire. See you in the neighborhood!
Real Old Paper Gallery
801 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA

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